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Spectacular SPIDER-MAN Spins a Hit

Plus: FROM HELL on DVD, and The Mail Bag talks EPISODE II score

An Aisle Seat WEB Entry
By Andy Dursin

The first time I saw Spider-Man was on the PBS series THE ELECTRIC COMPANY when I was a toddler back in the mid-late '70s. Spidey didn't speak back then, but he did manage to solve a few puzzles and entice kids to read books (not to mention his own "Spidey Super Stories" Marvel comic) at the same time.

A short time later came the live-action CBS series THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, starring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker -- the average guy bitten by a radioactive spider and turned into a super-hero. I still have those old episodes, which were combined into two-hour TV movies with titles like "Night Of The Clones/Escort To Danger." Spider-Man never battled any of his comic book nemesis in the series (it would have cost too much money), but the show was fun in a guilty-pleasure kind of way just the same. While Dana Kaproff's theme music was memorable enough, none of it compared to the all-out, orchestral funk of Johnnie Spence's original music from the two-hour pilot film -- some classic stuff that, sadly, has never been released on CD. (If anyone has access to it, please email me immediately!).

Along the way, I read "The Amazing Spider-Man" comic book, and actually was a faithful reader all the way through high school, when Peter married long-time girlfriend Mary Jane Parker and Todd MacFarlane made a name for himself with his celebrated artwork for the comic back in the late '80s.

Why "Spider-Man" has remained an enduring character -- and why so many people found themselves identifying with Peter Parker -- is simple: of all the super-heroes, Spider-Man is arguably the most "human" of them all. Yes, he has super powers, but his real-life problems are ones all young people have: trying to fit in and grow up, earn the respect of your peers, and become a responsible adult. Spider-Man's sense of humor and Peter Parker's maturation are simply easier to identify with than Superman's hang-ups or Batman's psychological problems. They have their own issues, but Spider-Man's problems are at least ones most of us can relate to on a daily basis.

All of that said, the big-screen "Spider-Man" movie has been a long time coming. First The Cannon Group promised us a cinematic Spidey adventure back in the '80s -- fortunately for us (considering Golan-Globus' track record), that didn't happen. Then James Cameron spent years trying to get his Spider-project off the ground in the '90s, only to see it entangled in a web of legal issues. Finally, Columbia Pictures and Marvel ironed out an agreement that would send Spider-Man spinning to the movies with Sam Raimi -- our old "Army Of Darkness," "Evil Dead" pal -- as director.

The end result of years waiting for the web-slinger to make his way to Hollywood was worth it. This SPIDER-MAN (****) is a dynamic comic-book come to life, filled with eye-popping, colorful action and appealing characters. It's aided immeasurably by a cast with names that may not be leaping off the marquee, but may be the most perfectly assembled ensemble to grace a comic-book flick ever (with the possible exception of a certain movie starring The Man Of Steel).

Tobey Maguire turns out to be a charming Peter Parker and a believable Spider-Man as well, portraying the smart but nerdy high school senior who inherits his powers from a genetically engineered spider during a class field trip. Whereas Peter's previous problems centered on finishing school and finding a job to impress the girl of his dreams -- the lovely Mary Jane (an appealing Kirsten Dunst) -- his time is now spent attempting to figure out how to control his new powers, including webs that shoot out from his wrists and the ability to crawl up buildings with ease. With great power, however, comes great responsibility -- as he learns from his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) after he's gunned down by a carjacker Peter could have stopped (a storyline ripped right out of the inaugural Spider-Man comic book from the '60s).

Donning his homemade costume, Peter becomes Spider-Man, using his powers to help others at the same time that millionaire industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) receives his own powers after testing out a serum on himself. After his own company is sold, Osborn flips out and acquires another personality -- that of The Green Goblin, who terrorizes New York and all of its innocent inhabitants with the help of a top-secret military device.

As a Spider-Man fan, I appreciated how faithful director Sam Raimi was to the source material here. Eschewing the dark and gloomy approach of "Batman," SPIDER-MAN leaps off the screen with colorful cinematography by Don Burgess and -- what's this? -- action scenes set in the daytime? We haven't seen that since the original SUPERMAN! The movie looks and feels right, and the performances are terrific. In addition to Maguire, Kirsten Dunst makes for an ideal Mary Jane, while Dafoe serves up the right mix of mirth and menace as the Green Goblin (he's only slightly confined by a helmet that should have had room for facial movements). James Franco acquits himself nicely in the somewhat underwritten role of Osborn's son (and Peter's friend), who may prove to be quite the menace himself in the sequels. Rosemary Harris fills the role of Aunt May just fine, Robertson is perfect as Uncle Ben, while J.K. Simmons marvelously chews up the scenery in his few scenes as the irascible J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of The Daily Bugle.

The movie is a great stand-alone adventure, but it's also an origin film and likely will prove to be a bit stiff compared to the tone of subsequent installments. David Koepp's script is one of the author's better efforts, but is still hampered by some under-developed characters and not taking enough time to develop certain story elements (particularly Peter's transition to a hero helping the community, and his work at The Daily Bugle). On the plus side, the movie's love story is surprisingly sweet and moving, with Dunst and Maguire exhibiting solid chemistry. The last exchange between them may not be quite in keeping with the tone of the comic, but there's sure to be time to rectify that in the sequels.

Technically, the effects aren't groundbreaking but are certainly sufficient in their execution. Raimi has always had a perfect eye for the often outrageous comic-book visuals the material requires, and viscerally SPIDER-MAN more than fulfills its end of the bargain. Musically, Danny Elfman's soundtrack is perfectly serviceable, though there's a formulaic, been-there-done-that element to his score that comes off as a little disappointing. The main title sounds like "Darkman" meets "Planet Of The Apes," and it might have been nice to have a melodic theme to grasp onto -- particularly considering the tuneful Spider-themes of yesteryear.

These minor gripes aside, SPIDER-MAN is fresh, fun, and often exhilarating -- a superior example of Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking at its best. It's a perfect cinematic web to get caught up in, and hopefully the start of a super summer at the movies to come. (PG-13, 121 minutes).


Spider-Related DVDs

Following SPIDER-MAN's record-shattering opening weekend, it's no surprise that we're seeing a handful of Spidey-related DVDs shit store shelves. While the Nicholas Hammond live-action series is regrettably not one of them (indulge me just a little, please), two discs should be mandatory purchases for Spider-Man die-hards.

SPIDER-MAN: THE ULTIMATE VILLAIN SHOWDOWN (Disney, $19.98) is a terrific DVD especially recommended for those who grew up watching the various Saturday morning Spidey TV cartoons over the years.

Featuring four episodes from the superior Fox animated series from the '90s -- as well as a bonus episode from the memorable '60s version -- Disney's DVD offers a solid sampling of Spider-Man's more colorful confrontations with classic Marvel villains. Obviously, the Green Goblin is the chief nemesis here, and the DVD includes four interconnected episodes from the "Sins Of The Father" arc involving Norman Osborn (aka the Green baddie himself) and his son Harry, who dons his own suit as The Hobgoblin (who I bet we're going to be seeing sooner than later in SPIDER-MAN 2). If you never saw the Fox series, it was a generally excellent adaptation of the Marvel comic, lifting certain story lines in their entirety out of the comic itself, and incorporating a good mix of humor that appealed to kids and adults equally. The lone entry from the '60s adaptation is a retelling of Spider-Man's origin, and it's sure to rekindle memories of the program (and its theme song) for those old enough to have watched it.

Disney's DVD boasts colorful menus and introductions by co-creator Stan Lee, plus a 20-minute conversation with Stan The Man himself. Here's hoping the disc will sell well enough to warrant the eventual, complete release of the entire Fox series down the road.

We'll review the other new Spider-Man themed DVD -- Columbia's conversation between Stan Lee and Kevin Smith -- next week. 'Nuff said!


New On DVD

FROM HELL (**1/2, 121 mins., 2001, R; Fox "Director's Limited Edition," due May 14, $29.98): The last good Jack The Ripper yarn was a made-for-television mini-series that starred Michael Caine and copped several Emmy awards back in 1988. Though far more graphic than that particular "Jack The Ripper," FROM HELL is an ambitious and evocatively shot production that's equal parts historical speculation, tragic romance, and slasher film, though the film's convoluted screenplay ultimately manages to put a damper on the movie's dramatic impact.

Johnny Depp plays an opium-addicted detective in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation in Victorian-era London, tracking down a rash of suspects that range from pimps preying on Whitechapel prostitutes to an individual possibly tied all the way to Buckingham Palace. Heather Graham (keeping her clothes on for one of the first times in an R-rated film, and managing to give a good performance as well) plays Mary Kelly, one of England's "unfortunates" who tries to stay alive while her lady-of-the-evening friends begin to be picked off one after another by the sadistic killer.

The Hughes Brothers ("Dead Presidents") directed this slick, gritty and viscerally arresting thriller, based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's comic graphic novel. The movie is filled with atmospheric production design -- damp and dirty sets, lushly designed interiors by Martin Childs -- all of it impressively shot by Peter Deming. Despite some obvious visual references from films like "Bram Stoker's Dracula," the fact is that, from start to finish, you can't take your eyes off FROM HELL, which somehow managed to be completely neglected at the Oscars last year.

In contrast to its artistic accomplishments, however, FROM HELL is severely compromised by its dramatic deficiencies: namely a jumbled script credited to Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, which ineffectively shifts the action from Graham's heroine, to Depp's would-be tragic detective, to Jack himself, during each of the movie's three acts. The trouble is that -- aside from the anticipation one has about learning of the killer's identity -- this tactic ends up disrupting the film's momentum, with neither Depp nor Graham receiving enough time for character development. Depp's drug addiction and doomed previous marriage are brought up but never elaborated upon, robbing his relationship with Graham and his sacrificial decision at the end of the dramatic power they should have had. Both actors turn in solid work, but the script itself isn't strong enough to support their talents.

That said, FROM HELL is still a highly entertaining film -- and a visual feast -- that anyone with an interest in the subject matter is urged to check out on video. If you do, you'll be rewarded with a dynamic DVD package, as Fox's double disc Special Edition is one of most elaborate presentations to hit stores in a long while.

A self-advertised "Director's Limited Edition" (which will apparently be pulled from store shelves in the near future), Fox has included a plethora of supplements here that will enrich the viewing experience from both a historical and cinematic perspective.

First off, the audio commentary track from The Hughes Brothers (which also includes co-writer Yglesias, Robbie Coltrane, and others) is mostly insightful, particularly when it discusses their well-documented run-ins with studio executives over the film's editing. Some 20 deleted scenes are included, many of them having been unfortunately cut from the final print. Kudos for whoever made the smart decision to include the specific unused material in color (any footage from the released version is in black-and-white), making it abundantly clear what material was excised. Nice job! While most of the cut scenes are interesting, one cannot say the same for the film's alternate ending (with Depp in a Shanghai opium den, looking like an extra from "Big Trouble In Little China"!), which was wisely re-shot.

The second disc includes a good array of extras. "Jack The Ripper: 6 Degrees Of Separation" looks at historical documents recounting the actual murders, in what turns out to be an interactive "In Search Of" of sorts. An HBO Featurette on the making of the film (hosted by Graham) is included, along with the requisite storyboards. An interesting examination of the production design and the original graphic novel is also on-hand, which will prove especially worthwhile for fans of the film unfamiliar with its source material. Visually, Fox's DVD serves up a strong 2.35 transfer and elaborate DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks, featuring a serviceable though somewhat unremarkable score by Trevor Jones.

Fox pulled some of their 2-disc Special Editions in recent months (like INDEPENDENCE DAY and PATTON) in favor of supplement-free, single-disc editions. While no specifics have been announced about the time table for FROM HELL, interested consumers would be wise to purchase their copy in the next few weeks, before it disappears from store shelves.


BANDITS (**, 123 mins., 2001, PG-13; MGM, $26.98): Every few weeks it seems a new story about MGM teetering on bankruptcy pops up in the paper. After watching their slate of high-profile, expensive projects go right down the drain in the last year, it's easy to see why.

Flops like "Rollerball" and "Hart's War" (neither of which managed to gross $20- million domestically) helped to off-set their few successes like "Legally Blonde," while a few of their other efforts -- like the Barry Levinson-directed caper comedy BANDITS -- performed modestly well, but only recovered a fraction of their budget at the box-office.

BANDITS is a movie that's so low-key it threatens to evaporate right off the screen in front of you. Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play a pair of bank robbers who escape from an Oregon prison and then instigate a rash of thefts across the West -- never killing anyone or stealing their money, but rather taking it right out of the government's pocket (or so they say). During their escapades they come across housewife Cate Blanchett, who wants out of her marriage and demands to join Bruno and Billy Bob's band of would-be merry men -- things that cause just a bit of friction as the boys inevitably fall in love with the film's leading lady.

Written by Harley Peyton and directed by Levinson, BANDITS is an okay time- killer, but little more. The movie is vividly shot on location by Dante Spinotti, giving the whole project a veneer of class, but after sitting through the film, I wasn't sure that a grittier approach wouldn't have been more interesting. More often than not, BANDITS is simply bland. The performances are fine, but Peyton's script is repetitive and the movie becomes tedious the longer it drags on. Levinson's direction doesn't help matters, keeping the movie on the same even keel from start to finish with very little dramatic variation.

MGM's DVD features a splendid 2.35 transfer, along with a perfectly acceptable 5.1 soundtrack. For Special Features, the disc includes a handful of deleted scenes (and a thankfully-excised alternate ending), the original featurette, and a look at the creation of "Scene 71." Oddly, a commentary track is reported to be included on the European DVD release, though it doesn't turn up here.


BULL DURHAM (***1/2, 108 mins., 1988, R; MGM, $24.98): Special Edition re-issue of Ron Shelton's fabulous baseball romantic-comedy is a genuine treat.  Shelton's 1988 film draws upon his own experience as a minor league ballplayer, represented in the film by semi-veteran Kevin Costner and aspiring Tim Robbins. Susan Sarandon memorably portrays the team groupie who "tutors" (sexually and otherwise) one young member of the Durham Bulls each season -- and predicaments naturally arise once Costner grows jealous of Sarandon's exploits with Robbins.

Filled with not only some kinky sex scenes but a genuine understanding of minor league baseball, BULL DURHAM has long been regarded as one of the top sports movies of all-time. Certainly Costner counted this as one of his many hits of the late '80s, a salty comic contrast to the genteel, fantasy baseball world that FIELD OF DREAMS would offer just a year later. The performances are all excellent, with Sarandon's Annie Savoy one of the actresses' most memorable roles, and Bobby Byrne's cinematography capturing the essence of the game.

MGM's DVD offers not only a new 1.85 transfer and 5.1 surround, but also two audio commentaries: one featuring Costner and Robbins, the other with writer-director Shelton (a track which I believe was recorded several years ago for the Special Edition laserdisc). Both are engaging, and you'll also find new interviews in the Making Of documentary, with trailers, photo galleries, and assorted profiles rounding out the disc.

The only downside to the DVD is that Costner often talks about scenes he laments ended up on the cutting room floor. It might have been nice to see those deleted sequences, but otherwise -- to use an old cliché -- MGM's Special Edition DVD pretty much hits a home run.


Aisle Seat Mail Bag: CLONES soundtrack reaction

From Daniel S. Lee:

Andy, I happen to agree with your assessment of the AOTC soundtrack. After hearing so many fans rave about this score, I set aside a couple hours of my time to listen to it under "serious" listening conditions (high end CD player, tube amp, Martin-Logan speaklers). Since then I've heard it a couple more times in the car, on a boombox, and on my CD clock radio, and I remain surprisingly unimpressed. I thought I was the only one to be disappointed, indeed, bored by most of the music. The lack of themes make it somewhat of an unmemorable listen, and the Love Theme can't even compare to Superman's, or even A.I.'s (both of which I think surpasses AOTC by leaps and bounds). In fact, I was far more moved by Princess Leia's theme playing over the trailer (the one which focuses on the love story). Oh, well. Maybe it will sound better on the big screen. Keep up the great work!


From Mark Stevens:

Hi Andy,
I would have to say your take on ATTACK OF THE CLONES mirrors my reaction perfectly--superbly crafted and sumptously recorded, but very little to engage one's imagination in a new and wondrous fashion. Even after three listenings, this latest in the STAR WARS musical world doesn't begin to approach HARRY POTTER and A.I. (I still listen to POTTER on a regular basis, firm in my belief that "Hedwig's Theme" is one of the most dead-on creations he's ever come up with for a film adaptation of a bestseller). And A.I. continues to yield up new facets to enjoy with each listening.

I would have preferred to put aside the CD and assimilate the score in the context of the film before going on record, but, as you mentioned, as a standalone listening experience, "the lights are on, but nobody's home." You are probably also right on the money about Williams having so much on his plate these days that it must be extremely difficult to keep up the level of excellence he has shown over so many years--a touch of the "Goldsmith workaholic syndrome", perhaps. His wonderful craftsmanship is much in evidence here, but his "art" is quite elusive in this effort.

In any case, I appreciate your candor in voicing a feeling I really didn't have the heart to own up to.


From Kaveh Cohen:

You know Andy...I have to agree with you. I love John Williams. In fact, I damn near idolize the man and his music. I think that the music he writes on his worst day is another composers' once-in-a-lifetime magnum opus. Having said that, any and all criticism is solely based on the maestro's own works. So Attack of the Clones is a great score. And although it's dark and brooding nature has made me look forward to seeing the film even more, it doesn't quite compare with his previous Star Wars scores. You're right, there's definitely a lack of themes, particularly new ones.

I have an idea. Perhaps the film doesn't offer enough new characters or plots to warrant new themes? Or perhaps the themes we know and love appear more onscreen then they do on the as usual too short and improperly sequenced soundtrack. In either case, I'm hoping the "Ultimate Edition" version of the score which Sony will inevitably release in a year, will include everything we find missing now.

Nevertheless, a new John Williams score is always a treat. No one has his consistency or his sheer genius. I for one will buy everything he puts out, including the Ultimate Edition which I now eagerly anticipate.



NEXT WEEK: Will SPIDER-MAN break more records? Will any movie challenge its box-office dominance? And will Universal finally send us a review copy of LEGEND? The answers and more in 7. Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then.

Excelsior!


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